Subject: GLW: Interview with ex-Interfet soldier
Former Interfet officer: `We were played for chumps'
Green Left Weekly's Vannessa Hearman spoke to Chip Henriss-Anderssen, a US-born, former Australian army officer who served with the UN's Interfet peacekeeping force in East Timor. He left the army in 2001 and subsequently joined the Greens. He is now involved with the ANZ Veterans for Peace.
When and where did you land in East Timor as part of Interfet? What did you see when you first landed? How did the locals react to the presence of Interfet troops?
I landed at Dili with 2RAR, which is an infantry battalion and part of the 3rd Brigade, on September 20, 1999. I was with the first conventional troops to land. The SAS was already there. My first task was to board a TNI [Indonesian military] truck with the SAS and the media and go to the port area in Dili. We were the first Interfet troops to move through the city.
When I first landed I was quite focused on staying out of the way of the infantry soldiers who were securing the airport. I remember that there was garbage and human faeces all over the place. The TNI were hanging around talking to our SAS guys. As we moved through the city, I noticed an eerie quietness and there were [Indonesian] red and white colours everywhere, and red and white headbands on a lot of people.
The locals were welcoming from the very first. The first people I interacted with were at the port and they were a bit shy, but you could see how happy they were to meet us. Once they felt comfortable, it became overwhelming as they approached us and kissed our hands.
I stayed in East Timor until January 2000. After we secured Dili, our brigade moved west to the city of Suai, near the border with West Timor. Once the media lost interest in the story, I spent most of my time teaching English to children and adults in Suai.
My experiences with the locals were 100% positive. I think they are fantastic people. I started to learn their language and really enjoyed being around them. We would take a medic and go into a village and treat people who needed help or were injured. We would sing songs with them, play soccer and just muck around. These were always good for us and them, as you can imagine.
I also heard endless stories of what happened to people and their families after the [September 1999] referendum. One man I remember came to me with a pair of running shoes and a photo of his son. He was sobbing and I was holding him. The anti-independence militias had taken away his son and he was distraught. I was powerless to do anything and I hate that feeling.
I was so proud of our country and our army during those days in East Timor. Our leaders were good, our doctors looked after people and delivered babies. We really connected with the people.
Interfet was obviously a victory for the Howard government — it was a successful operation, though perhaps did not come soon enough for the East Timorese; and the government came out looking like the greatest humanitarians in the world. Since then, Australia has been involved in a number of military adventures: Afghanistan, the Solomon Islands and Iraq. What's your view of the Australian government's motivations around these operations?
I always felt we went into East Timor too late and we appeased the Indonesians, way too much. I think many Australian soldiers felt anger at the Indonesians and I was berated by General Cosgrove for speaking too harshly and aggressively toward the militia during a press conference.
I think the government's motivations always revolve around corporate outcomes. In East Timor, we soldiers generally believed that we were going there to help and we did help. I now think that the Timor Gap also had a lot to do with it. Our military and civil aid are being used as leverage.
What we can't forget is that East Timor was totally destroyed. If the anti-independence militia didn't have time to destroy a house they at least took the roof off it. The East Timorese have nothing and we live in a world of pizza deliveries and shopping malls. We watch TV, they spend time picking lice out of each other's hair. This is like going to stay with a person who has been raped. You move in to help them feel secure and get on their feet, and then say “Oh, by the way, I want 90% of your income”. When they don't agree you say, “You ungrateful prick”.
What do you say to critics who claim that Interfet started this Australian grab for East Timor's resources?
Interfet didn't start it at all. On the contrary, Interfet was a rare glimpse of a military force actually being used for good. The East Timorese were just nationally raped and they needed security and aid. It was one of the rare examples in history where an army came in, provided security, friendship and care. As a Green and an anarchist, I have a lot of internal struggle with the concept of armies and their hierarchal system.
What led you to leaving the army? And why did you join the Greens?
I left the army because a good job came up. In the army, you have to move every few years. I wanted stability with my family. I also started feeling dissatisfied with military life and wanted the freedom to express my political views. I had been a Greens supporter since 1993. Up until that time I believed that all left politics were about Stalinist dictatorships and unpractical.
As I studied and learned more, I thought the Greens were the only practical way to start building a new society within the shell of the old. The Greens aren't perfect, but they really are the only real opposition in the country. If we could build strong anarcho-syndicalist groups, a la the Spanish Civil War, that is what I would do.
How do you feel now, having taken part in Interfet, about the Howard government's attempt to persuade the East Timorese government to cede oil and gas rights to Canberra?
I guess that as a soldier you aren't really looking at alternative viewpoints. I don't think that you could last too long with yourself in the army if you really started reading [Noam] Chomsky. Now, I just feel like we were played for chumps. We went there, did all this good work and we thought it really was for a good cause. Now I find out that it really was for rich people after all. That makes me angry.
What's ANZ Veterans for Peace about?
ANZ Veterans for Peace is modelled after the US group of the same name. We are just getting started here and I hope we actually get somewhere. We are people who served as soldiers. We know what it means to live in holes in the ground for days and weeks. We know what it's like to sacrifice individual liberties and how to look after each other. The problem is that most veterans seem to feel that if you aren't blindly patriotic and you question the system you're a whinger.
We are trying to get veterans together to show our outrage at the Howard government's shafting of East Timor as well as the crime of the current Gulf war. One of my very close friends is serving in Iraq right now. He has a wife and small daughter and believes he is there because Saddam Hussein was a bad guy and now the Iraqis will live better. If he were to be killed or if anyone was to die there from Australia it would be a travesty. Would the companies winning contracts there even think about him or his family? Would they build a statue to remember him?
We support the troops by getting them the hell out of there. We support Iraq by helping them get on their feet and sharing our wealth with them. We should fix their education system at the same time we fix ours. Instead, we are shooting them and screwing our own children's futures.
ANZ Veterans for Peace is a working title. We are just gathering support at the moment. We would work to put pressure on governments and I believe we would add legitimacy to protest actions by turning up wearing our medals and demanding a stop to these crazy and foolhardy deployments.
I would like to see more veterans from Australia and New Zealand get together and take to the streets. We need to send a big message to these mummy's boys and girls who have never carried a rifle or marched in file but are all too happy to send our kids off to corporate take-overs to kill other poor people.
ANZ Veterans for Peace can be contacted through at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From Green Left Weekly, September 1, 2004. Visit the http://www.greenleft.org.au/ Green Left Weekly home page.
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